Hillary Clinton pounced on rival Barack Obama for his willingness to meet with some troublesome world leaders during a Democratic US presidential debate starring a parade of questions posed through YouTube videos.
The debate featured video questions submitted from around the world via the Internet, from workers in Darfur refugee camps and an animated snowman worried about global warming to a strumming guitarist who sang his question about whether Democrats would raise taxes.
It was highlighted by a clash between the top 2008 Democratic contenders after Obama said he would be willing to meet with leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. The Bush administration considers the nations regional troublemakers.
Obama, who leads Democrats in fund raising and is looking to cut Clinton's lead in polls, said it was important to search for areas "where we can potentially move forward" and added, "I think it's a disgrace that we have not spoken to them."
Clinton, the New York senator, disagreed, saying such meetings could be used as propaganda purposes.
"Certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria, until we know better what the way forward would be," she said.
The format was designed to force candidates to drop their rehearsed answers and sound bites. It sparked lively exchanges between all eight Democratic candidates on Iraq and diplomacy, and an extended discussion of race and gender involving Obama and Clinton.
Asked if Muslim leaders in the Middle East would be able to negotiate and work with a woman, Clinton said that after meeting various foreign leaders as first lady to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s: "There isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously."
Clinton said she was proud to be running as a woman, and Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black president, said Americans were ready to go beyond racial divisions.
"I couldn't run as anything other than a woman," Clinton said. "I'm excited that I may be able finally to break that hardest of all glass ceilings."
The meeting on the campus of the Citadel military college in Charleston, South Carolina, was the fourth for Democrats and comes six months before the first votes in the 2008 nominating campaign.
South Carolina, one of the first states to vote in the 2008 nominating contest, is scheduled to hold its Democratic primary along with Florida on January 29, 2008, shortly after Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Clinton leads the Democratic field in national polls and in recent polls in South Carolina. Obama, an early opponent of the Iraq war, questioned her Senate vote to authorise the war in 2002.
"The time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we got in," he said.
Told by a voter that Democrats were expected to end the war after they won power in Congress in the 2006 election, anti-war Ohio Representaticve Dennis Kucinich said party members were unwilling to take the politically risky move of cutting off war funding.
"Yes, it is politics. The Democrats have failed the American people," he said.
More than 2,000 video questions were posted on YouTube's site for the debate. CNN editors used more than 30 of them.
The candidates also submitted their own videos. They ranged from Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut's joking reference to his white hair to Edwards' attempt to lay to rest the media hoopla over his $400 haircut.
Edwards's video used the soundtrack from the musical "Hair" over a montage of photos of war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. "What Really Matters? You Choose" said the closing card.